Project Canterbury

Beginnings in India

By Eugene Stock, D.C.L.

London: Central Board of Missions and SPCK, 1917.

Chapter XIV. The First Effort to Revive an Ancient Church

LESS than five years ago, December 18-20, 1913, a memorable meeting took place at Calcutta, a Conference of specially elected delegates from the Christian Missions and Indian congregations in all parts of India, sixty in number, including four Anglican Bishops and seven other members of our communion, English and Indian. One of the members wrote of "an amazing sight," the appearance of "two venerable figures clad in strange and gorgeous robes that made them resemble Moses and Aaron of the coloured-picture Bible." Who were these venerable personages in gorgeous robes? They were the Metropolitans of the two branches of the ancient Syrian Church of Malabar, who had come some 1,500 miles from Travancore to attend the Conference. How this came about let us now see.

To find the "Beginning" of this Church we should have to go back a long way. A doubtful tradition claims the Apostle St. Thomas as its founder. Certainly it is very ancient. It had been a Nestorian Church, but in the sixteenth century, under Portuguese influence, it submitted to the Papacy. In the seventeenth century, however, the greater part reasserted its independence, obtained a Syrian Metropolitan from Antioch, and thus became Jacobite. In 1806, Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General of India, sent Buchanan, the Calcutta chaplain, to visit this Christian Church and report on it; and Buchanan's Christian Researches excited much interest in England. [The Syrian Bishops gave Buchanan their codex of the ancient Syriac Scriptures. The Bible Society printed it for use in the Syrian Churches; and also a Malayalam version.] The C.M.S. Report of 1812 called attention to the Syrian Church as "having maintained a regular Episcopal Succession from the earliest ages," and as "according in all important points with the faith of the primitive Church," and suggested that "a few learned, prudent, and zealous clergymen" might "revive the influence and faith of that oppressed community." The Society's "Orientalist," Samuel Lee (afterwards Professor of Arabic at Cambridge), was requested to compile a history of the Syrian Church, which was printed as an Appendix to the Report of 1817; and of the first six English clergymen sent to India by the Society, five were commissioned to promote the welfare and revival of that Church. Of these, one was Joseph Fenn, who gave up a lucrative practice as a barrister to be ordained for this work in response to what he felt to be a call from God, and whose six sons, all of them Cambridge men, rendered important service in after years both in the home Church and in the Mission Field. Another was Henry Baker, whose family have ever since had a large share in the Travancore Mission.

The C.M.S. charged the missionaries "not to pull down the ancient Church and build another, but to remove the rubbish and repair the decaying places." "The Syrians should be brought back to their own ancient and primitive worship and discipline, rather than be induced to adopt the liturgy and discipline of the English Church." They faithfully obeyed these injunctions. For twenty years they worshipped and communicated in the Syrian churches, with a ritual which in those days would have seemed strange to every Churchman in England. Their own children were baptized in those churches. They confined their exhortations to the correction of manifest evils. They urged that public worship should be conducted, not in the old ecclesiastical Syriac, but in the Malayalam vernacular "understanded of the people"; that masses for the dead, with the extortionate fees paid for them, should be abolished; that, with a view to a higher standard of morality, which proved to be deplorably low, the priests should be allowed to marry, as had formerly been the case, and as in the mother Church in Syria; and that the duty of evangelizing the surrounding heathen population should be recognized--a duty neglected all through the centuries, just as it has been by other Oriental Churches in Moslem lands. [The marriage of priests had been given up under Roman influence.]

At first the reception of the missionaries was such as to inspire sanguine hopes of a real revival. In 1821 the Metran (Metropolitan) wrote to Lord Gambier, the President of the C.M.S., a remarkable letter of warm gratitude. He referred to "Mar Buchanan, the illustrious priest," and to "Priest Joseph" and "Priest Henry" (Fenn and Baker). He likened Colonels Macaulay and Monro, successive Residents at the Travancore Court, who had befriended the Church and welcomed the Mission, to Moses and Joshua, and stigmatized the Pope as Pharaoh. The work was also heartily commended by Bishop Middle-ton of Calcutta, and by Dr. Mill, the S.P.G. Principal of Bishop's College, both of whom inspected it. But in 1825 the good Metran died. His successor proved hostile to all reform, and at last, in 1835, he convened a Synod, and persuaded the Church to reject formally all the counsels that had been offered, taking an oath of the members to cease all connexion with the Mission.

Then the missionaries acted like St Paul at Pisidian Antioch: "lo, they turned to the heathen." They had already sought incidentally to give the large Hindu population the Christian message, but now they were free to turn their whole attention to this evangelistic work. Among other efforts, in the place of a college which had been planned by Colonel Monro for the Syrians, and in which they had been working, they established a new one; and the Society sent out a Fellow of St. John's, Cambridge, John Chapman, to take charge of it.

Meanwhile, an earnest reform movement sprang up in the Syrian Church itself, showing that the influence of the Mission had not been wholly in vain, and many of the younger Syrians, who had been educated in the first college, were reading the vernacular Malayalam Bible. But this was not popular. One priest avowed his determination to expound the Gospel to his people in their own tongue instead of in what was a dead language to them; but when he began, the whole congregation rose and walked out. The simplest reform seemed hopeless, and some of the more enlightened, weary of this ultra-conservatism, and of the prevailing superstition and immorality, sought admission to the Anglican congregations that were beginning to be formed by conversions from the heathen. The counsel generally given to them was "Keep to your own Church, and seek its reform." Some did bravely hold on, and in later years their influence helped to promote the strong reform movement to be seen to-day. But others, some of whom had been excommunicated, could not be refused by the Mission, and in 1844, one of these received Anglican orders from the Bishop of Madras--George Matthan, an able man, who translated Butler's Analogy into Malayalam, and did excellent missionary service for more than a quarter of a century. He was followed by Jacob Chandy in 1847, and by four others in 1856. One of them, Koshi Koshi, translated the Pilgrim's Progress, and another, Oomen Mamen, was converted to Christ through reading the immortal allegory in that translation. Both these two men, long after, were appointed Archdeacons, and Archbishop Benson conferred on Koshi Koshi the Lambeth D.D. degree.

Year by year the missionary work among the Hindu population went forward, until in 1915 the number of Christians connected with the C.M.S. exceeded 53,000, with thirty-four Indian clergy. In 1879 it was felt that an Anglican Bishop was required, and an experienced missionary, J. M. Speedily, was consecrated. He has had two successors, E. N. Hodges and C. H. Gill.

In later years the Syrian Church has become divided into two sections, the old Jacobite and the new Reformed, each with its own Metropolitan. Indeed, there is also a small "Chaldean" section, and there are the few Syrians in the Anglican Church. We do well to regret all these divisions, but we shall do better to regret the real cause of them, the ultra-conservatism of an old Church that refuses the most urgently needed reforms. The whole Syrian community, numbering 700,000 souls (including those in the Roman communion), has been troubled in recent years by many free-lance missionaries from England and America, even by agents of the deluded followers of the late "Pastor Russell." On the other hand, the much lamented Rev. T. Walker, of Tinnevelly, held many "special Missions" at the request of both Metropolitans, which brought much spiritual blessing and kept very many unstable souls from being tossed about with every wind of doctrine.

Meanwhile, the two Metropolitans, realizing the need for unity, approached Dr. J. R. Mott when he visited India in 1912-1913, asking for his counsel and influence--a wonderful thing in itself; and, still more wonderful, as he had no time to visit Travancore, they and a party of representatives of all the sections actually took the long journey to Calcutta, and not only attended the General Conference as before mentioned, but also held a conference of their own under his chairmanship, which resulted in most promising plans for future harmony and united work, particularly in efforts to win the heathen to Christ. Then, in January, 1916, Bishop Pakenham Walsh, of Assam, and Mr. Sherwood Eddy, the American evangelist, held conventions by request in Travancore, with manifest blessing. The Oxford Mission at Calcutta also has found a special welcome from the old Jacobite Church, and will probably, and quite naturally, exercise considerable influence over it. Altogether, it may well be that the ancient Church, divided as it is at present, has yet an important part to play in the building up of Indian Christendom.

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